The Summer Solstice: Nope, Not Just for Pagans

June 21, 2014 | Posted in: Sociology

July Afternoon, Guy Rose, 1897.

July Afternoon, Guy Rose, 1897.

“What is one to say about June, the time of perfect young summer, the fulfillment of the promise of the earlier months, and with as yet no sign to remind one that its fresh young beauty will ever fade.” Gertrude Jekyll


Today’s the summer solstice, and if you’ve no idea what that means or instantly think of flower-bedecked pagans chanting together around a bonfire, you’re not alone. Modern society has a very tenuous connection to the ancient festivals that marked the changing of the seasons. While some simply took on new names and traditions, think Christmas or Halloween, the summer solstice has been almost entirely erased from our collective memory. Now the summer passes by without any great cultural celebration to mark our gratitude for this season of fertility, beauty, plenty, and joy.

So, what might we be forgetting to celebrate on this day of solstice? Well, the sun’s arc across the sky, as observed by us earthlings in the Northern Hemisphere has, since the winter solstice in December, been steadily rising and setting further north, increasing the hours of daylight, and appearing higher in the sky. This seasonal variation in the amount of sunlight is caused by the tilted axis of our planet in relation to the sun. In the spring, at the time of the equinox, day and night had an equal share of the allotted 24 hours. As spring continued to unfurl, the sun continued its rising arc, and every day brought more light and warmth, providing plants the necessary energy to burst forth in verdant abundance, restoring life to the those of us living north of the equator.

A pinhole camera captured the movement of the Sun's arc over months, taken from the APEX telescope on the plateau of Chajnantor.

A pinhole camera captured the movement of the Sun’s arc over months, taken from the APEX telescope on the plateau of Chajnantor.

“Almost all of life on the surface of the earth is fueled by the enormous amounts of energy intercepted from the sun, through a chemical reaction involving one main molecule, chlorophyll, and its reaction with water and carbon dioxide to produce sugar, the main fuel that powers life…” Bernd Heinrich, Summer World

With the strengthening of the sun’s light in spring, plants are able to kick their photosynthesis back into high gear, capturing the energy of sunlight and turning it into food in the form of leaf, seed, nut, fruit, root, flower, and nectar for the plant-eaters, who in turn sustain the meat-eaters. The cycle of life continues, summer after summer, year after year, all fueled by the warmth and light from the sun.

“When the upsurge of spring has passed its peak there is a subtle change as growth slows down and gives way to the flowering of plants and the ripening of crops. Plants no longer strive upwards as much as spread outwards, and flowers open and bloom rather than climb further towards the sun. The hours of summer days are longer and everything in Nature which has grown through the spring reaches ripeness and maturity in the summer heat, soaking up as much heat and energy from the sun as it can to prepare for a good harvest.” J.R. Worsley, Classical Five-Element Acupuncture, Vol. III

On this day of the summer solstice, the sun has reached its highest arc in the sky, making the longest day and shortest night of the whole yearly cycle. The word solstice originated from the Latin words Sol stetit, which translate to “the Sun stood still.” This isn’t just a poetic description, for the six days leading up the solstice the sun appears to the eye to rise and set in the exact same place, as if it’s reached an invisible barrier in the sky. Thus, the solstice marks the high point of the sun’s ascent and simultaneously its slow but inevitable descent, as the summer progresses into autumn and the hours of daily sunlight diminish.

Scherzo (Sonata of the Pyramids), Mikalojus Ciurlionis, 1909.

Scherzo (Sonata of the Pyramids), Mikalojus Ciurlionis, 1909.

Since almost the whole of the web of life relies on solar energy, it’s not surprising that the changes of the sun were of intrinsic importance to indigenous peoples the world over:

“[T]he Solstices themselves transcend religious ideology: they are simply astronomical facts. And they were celebrated by ancient peoples everywhere in the world, not just by the inhabitants of so-called pagan Europe.” Richard Heinberg, Celebrate the Solstice

In Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Middle East, and Europe, ancient inhabitants built stone circles, chambers, temples, and pyramids, all made to track the changes of the sun throughout the year, and especially to recognize the days of the solstices. The most well-known of these monuments is Stonehenge, which still brings a yearly crowd to celebrate the summer solstice.

Stonehenge, near Salisbury, England. Photograph taken between ca. 1890 and ca. 1900.

Stonehenge, near Salisbury, England. Photograph taken between 1890 and 1900.

In 1903, a young Virginia Woolf made her own journey to visit Stonehenge:

“I would call it a pilgrimage: because in truth we went in all reverence with a pure desire to enjoy ourselves. A day spent happily in the open air counts, I am sure ‘whatever Gods there may be’ as worship; the air is a Temple in which one is purged of ones sins… One can imagine why this spot was chosen by the Druids — or whoever they were — for their Temple to the Sun. It lies very naked to the sun. It is a kind of alter made of earth, on which the whole world might do sacrifice.” A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals

Our modern world may appear to us less reliant on the cycles of the season. After all, we can get strawberries all year round, and no longer need to store up food for the onset of winter now that we have 24 hour grocery stores. But truly, our lives are still as reliant on the sun as they ever were, for if its light were to go out, so would we.

This is what the solstice celebration truly is about: gratitude for the continuation of life, for the abundance of the season that we are the recipients of, not the creators. So, now is the time to eat a locally grown strawberry, ripened by the return of solar energy and heartrendingly sweet. Then, why not give thanks to the Sun, regardless of your religious or political or philosophical beliefs, because truly we’re fortunate to be alive and in the heart of summer once more.

Strawberries, Octav Bancila, 1906.

Strawberries, Octav Bancila, 1906.

“In June, as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them.” Aldo Leopold

Just one person out of 7 billion + on a journey to live a life that is vibrant, soul-fulfilling, useful to others, and consciously engaged with the ecological community that sustains all life, including mine and yours.